Edward Phelan (Ireland) was born on 25 July 1888 in Waterford, Ireland. After studying at Liverpool University Phelan joined the British Civil Service. In 1916 he became a member of the Intelligence Division of the newly created Ministry of Labour, where he played a leading role in evolving the British proposal for the establishment of the ILO which was submitted to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Phelan was appointed Secretary of the Labour Section of the British delegation to the Peace Conference, served as Assistant Secretary of the Organising Committee to prepare the First Session of the International Labour Conference in 1919 Washington, and finally appointed Principal Secretary of that Conference. Phelan therefore knew the ILO in depth, having participated in the drafting of its Constitution.
Albert Thomas's first act on appointment as Director of the International Labour Office was to offer a post to Phelan, who thereby became the first official of the ILO. As first Head of the Diplomatic Division, Phelan took charge of the Office in the absence of Thomas and Butler, rose to be Assistant Director in 1933 and Deputy Director in 1938, became Acting Director on the resignation of John Winant in 1941, and in 1946, was appointed Director-General with retrospective effect from 1941.
Realizing the need for an early meeting of the members of the Organisation, even though war conditions rendered a regular session of the International Labour Conference impossible, Phelan undertook the necessary consultations and a Conference was convened in New York in October 1941, with the closing sitting taking place in the White House at President Roosevelt's invitation. The Conference emphasized the importance of associating the ILO with efforts to rebuild a peaceful world once the war ended.
During the war years, the ILO did all that it could with a nucleus of staff and a skeleton budget. Its standard setting work had to be suspended as no International Labour Conference would met, but advisory missions on social insurance were sent to countries in Latin America and elsewhere. The information programme was continued through the International Labour Review and various special publications. Close contact was maintained with Washington and London, where plans were already being developed for a new international organization to succeed the League of Nations.
Meeting in Philadelphia in April 1944, at the height of the second world war, the International Labour Conference - composed of tripartite delegates from 41 countries - agreed on seven Recommendations designed to deal with emerging problems in the fields of social security and employment , as well as social policy in dependent territories. More importantly, it adopted the Declaration of Philadelphia which laid down two basic principles: first, that it must be the central aim of national and international policy to achieve conditions in which all men and women can pursue their material well-being and their spiritual development in freedom and dignity, economic security and equal opportunity; and second, that all national and international efforts should be judged in the light of whether or not they help to further that aim.
In the Declaration, the ILO's original mandate was formulated in more comprehensive and positive terms. The ILO was entrusted with a special responsibility to the peoples of the world to examine and consider international economic and financial policies and measures in order to ensure that social policy was made a dominant concern and the welfare of the people a central objective. The earlier concept of protecting workers against hazards was replaced by a more affirmative ideal of social security to provide a basic income, comprehensive medical care, and effective promotion of health and well-being. The aim of preventing unemployment was restated in terms of fostering full employment and thus contributing to higher living standards. The problem of working conditions was no longer considered solely in relation to removing specific hardships, but was placed in the broader context of policies governing wages, working hours etc.
In June 1945, the Charter of the United Nations was adopted at San Francisco, and the new pattern of postwar international organization began to emerge. But the place of the ILO in that system had not been defined. At San Francisco, the representatives of the ILO had been received coldly; there were pressures for a clean sweep of the League of Nations and organizations associated with it. At the invitation of General de Gaulle, the International Labour Conference met in Paris and set to work to revise the Constitution to meet the demands of the postwar era. Provisions concerning relation with the League of Nations were deleted and similar provisions on relations with the United Nations were added. In the early months of 1946, negotiations began between the ILO and the United Nations. The resulting Agreement was the first of its kind to be concluded between the United Nations and a specialized agency, and served to a large extent as the model for subsequent agreements.
Another significant achievement under Phelan's leadership of the ILO, was the adoption of Convention No. 87 on freedom of association and the right to organize by the International Labour Conference in 1948. Edward Phelan died in Geneva on 15 September 1967.